"Pajama Pundits" — Mugger Takes on the Bloggers

01.19.2005 | Russ Smith | Media Affairs

A pickle, one Village Voice writer said years ago about alcoholics, can never be a cucumber again. And so it is with the mass media, which can’t return to the era when James Reston, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Anthony Lewis and New York Times and Washington Post editorials defined the news of the day and to hell with those who refused to listen. The bloggers—”citizen journalists,” pajama pundits, whatever you want to call them—are reaching millions of Americans, and while many will be coopted by traditional media companies, it’s a kick in the pants and skirts of the Beltway cocktail party crowd, whose precious words and broadcasts don’t matter as much anymore.

And so, after all the accolades, comes the backlash. John Ellis, a former Boston Globe (and New York Press) columnist who periodically posted observations on his Ellisblog (as of now on hiatus), spanked the Internetizens (Jan. 11) in a brief piece about the CBS purge last week. Ellis, President Bush’s cousin, is no fan of the network—Rather (“a pompous fool”), CBS News president Andrew Heyward and Mary Mapes in particular—but aside from the admission of bias, he praised the thoroughness of its report.

Ellis writes: “I’m not sure which was more pathetic, bloggers posting their phone numbers for ‘media interviews’ or all the bloviating about ‘whitewash’ and ‘cover-up.’ Memo to bloggers: 1) we don’t care if you’re on TV and; 2) The report is the most scathing indictment of the standards and practices of CBS News ever published, by anyone at anytime (with the possible exception of Renata Adler’s work on the Westmoreland vs. CBS case). Stop preening and stop whining.”

Naturally, one thinks immediately of Andrew Sullivan when the word “whining” is invoked, and not only for the insipid slogan “The Revolution Will Be Blogged” that once appeared as a banner on his website. Who can forget Sullivan saying “you’re welcome” to Iraqi citizens when Saddam Hussein was ousted? There’s also his seemingly day-to-day vacillation on issues—making John Kerry appear decisive—whether it’s the war, the prospects for democracy in the Mideast or Bush’s domestic initiatives. His obsession with Abu Ghraib also strikes me as not recognizing modern warfare, not to mention similar American abuses in past wars that went unreported in the days before the communications industry busted out.

Sullivan, despite his denials, was a one-issue voter, vigorous protestations notwithstanding: Once Bush pushed for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he hopped on the Kerry bandwagon. Which is fine by me—gay marriage is inevitable, and, a few economic wrinkles aside, probably desirable—but it would’ve been more honest if he admitted it. I also don’t like his continual derision aimed at National Review’s John Derbyshire, but to each his own.

But Sullivan’s unforgivable sin—at least in this world—is his presumptuous role as spokesman for the online commentators and investigators and needlers.

Sullivan, of course, not only runs a blog—and is more shameless than most about soliciting donations to keep his essential work up and running—but is a mainstream journalist as well, a well-respected man about town who writes for The New Republic, New York Times, Washington Post, Time, London’s Times, and is ubiquitous on the tube. Nevertheless, in reaction to Howard Fineman’s strange online (Jan. 11) Newsweek piece about the elite media’s diminishing health, Sullivan, who craves nothing quite so much as to be on a first-name basis with the guys and gals who patrol the streets of DC, issued a Scout leader’s warning to his brethren on Jan. 12.

He wrote: “Are we now the establishment? Fineman says we are. His admission that the mainstream media have acted as a de facto political party for three decades strikes me as a big deal—the first crack of self-awareness in the MSM. But I truly hope the blogosphere doesn’t become its replacement. Blogs are strongest when they are politically diverse, when they are committed to insurgency rather than power, when they belong to no party. I’m particularly worried that the blogosphere has become far more knee-jerk, shrill and partisan since the days when I first started blogging. Some of that’s healthy and inevitable; but too much is damaging. In challenging the MSM, we should resist the temptation to become like them.”

Hambone, you are them!

Sullivan’s site, however, isn’t a patch on the circle-jerk that Eric Alterman publishes on weekdays under the misguided auspices of MSNBC.com. Alterman, who makes a living from writing books about the mainstream media’s conservative bias, as well as—and this gives you an indication of today’s higher education standards—teaching journalism at colleges, regales readers with the kind of extreme left-wing hootenanny that only an affluent Upper West Side intellectual could muster. Oh, and also pop music tips and stories of his mingling with stars backstage. A lot of Nation cant, a dose of Rolling Stone celebrity worship, disdainful digs at the New York Observer (that paper’s best writer, George Gurley, once made fun of Alterman) and nods to his friends who are also “progressive” thinkers.

Part of the blog is given over to Alterman’s acolytes, many of whom refer to him as “Doctor.” A frequent contributor is Charles Pierce, a onetime terrific sportswriter who’s become a psychological wreck in the last decade, probably from writing for the atrocious Esquire and worshiping at the feet of John McCain.

Pierce, on Jan. 14, was in rare form, spitting and spewing about the raw deal Dan Rather got at CBS, which is still “an actual network with an actual news division,” as opposed to Fox, “Rupert Murdoch’s toy network.” His advice to Rather: “Get up off the damn canvas. If they’re going to accuse you of being out to get the Avignon Presidency anyway, then by God, do it for real. Start by digging into the AWOL story, which is still out there. Go after the assault on Valerie Plame, everything we weren’t told about the 9/11 whitewash, and the ongoing laundering of the crazy intelligence culture that led us into a war. Compare it to the current run-up to the demolition of Social Security. Point it out every time C-Plus Augustus tells an outright lie, the way that he did the other day. ‘The president’s remarks seem to bear no relation to the actual facts…’ would be a nice way to start one story per newscast.”

Unwittingly, that last slur against Bush isn’t bad advice for the Rathers of the media world. It would be refreshing if the CBS news reporters, as well as their colleagues at ABC, CNN, NBC, the Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Newsweek, for example, would shed the myth of objectivity that fools only second-graders at this point, and declare their bias, just as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial-page writers do.

William Safire, in the run-up to his farewell to the Times op-ed page, wrote on Jan. 17 that, unlike Fineman, he’s not terribly worried about the death of journalism as some knew it. His counsel to the old-timers: “Some mainstreamers flopped on necessary election evenhandedness in 2004 and should be grimly thankful for a corrective kick in the teeth from other media, bloggers and righteous right-wingers. Get out of that Slough, counsels Worldly-Wiseman: Pulitzer-quality journalism lies just ahead.”

Hell, Safire’s retiring, so there’s no need to lecture him about the corrupt Pulitzer Prize boondoggle. That’s bound to explode in about two years.

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